Attention principals: use your flexibility

The Shanker Institute's Matt Di Carlo had a great post last week breaking down a recent study by
economist Brian Jacob on how principals fire (or don't fire) teachers in
Chicago Public Schools. The news that firings correlate with lower
effectiveness is nice to hear. But the headline is that, given more
flexibility, principals still mostly don't fire anybody:

Given more
flexibility, principals still mostly don't fire anybody.
Jacob found that, despite the new policy allowing principals
to dismiss probationary teachers at will, a rather high proportion of them
didn’t do so. During each year between 2004-05 and 2006-07, principals in
around 30-40 percent of Chicago
schools chose not to dismiss a single probationary teacher. Further, this
phenomenon was not at all limited to “high-performing” and/or low-poverty
schools, where one might expect to find a stable, well-trained teaching force.
For instance, in 2005, 35 percent of the “lowest-performing” schools (the
bottom 25 percent) chose not to dismiss any probationary teachers, as compared
with 54 percent of the school with the highest absolute achievement levels (the
proportions were similar when school performance was measured in terms of
value-added).
In other words, when principals were given free rein to fire for any reason,
with virtually no documentation or effort, a significant proportion chose not
to use this power even once.

This is quite a challenge to those who believe union
obstructionism or onerous due process are the primary obstacles to moving poor
teachers out of the profession. Those are worthwhile things to fight, where
they are truly an impediment to improving the work force, but given the chance,
principals still seem to prefer retaining ineffective staff.

Why? As Matt notes, there are a lot of plausible
explanations. If I had to guess, I'd say the professional culture in most public
schools still sees firing as an extreme response to bad performance, instead
preferring endless remediation. The supply of decent job candidates is probably
not up to demand in CPS, either, meaning the labor market is a barrier to
implementing better policies around teacher performance.

The study's results also suggest to me that there's a
leadership gap at the building level. Urban superintendents answer for poor
performance with their jobs. Average tenure is low and has trended downward in
recent decades. But how far down does the accountability (and leadership
development) go? How many principals get meaningful training in management, and
how many of them lose their own jobs if they keep hiring the same cohort of
underperforming teachers?

As always, good policy only sets districts up for the next
step: implementation. The natural experiment in Chicago shows how much further we have to go
to improve teacher quality—and illustrates that (very) local leadership is key
to success.

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